For the first time, the vast array of bacteria in the human gut has been studied as a complex, integrated biological system, rather than a set of separate species.
The new approach, which reveals patterns that correspond with body weight, treats the human microbiome as a cohesive “supra-organism,” in which genes from multiple microbial species act in concert, as if they were part of a single organism, says Elhanan Borenstein, assistant professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington.
“Our research introduces a novel framework, applying systems biology and in-silico (computer) modeling to study the human microbiome—the complex ensemble of microorganisms that populate the human body—as a single cohesive system,” he explains.
People harbor more than 100 trillion microbes that live in various habitats on and within the human anatomy; the gut houses the densest population of all, containing hundreds of bacterial species. Their collective gene set is enormous: 150 times larger than the set of human genes.
The gut microbiome helps keep us alive by manufacturing vitamins and the building blocks of proteins, extracting energy from food, and conferring disease resistance.
“Characterizing the gut microbiome and its interactions with its human host has the potential to provide deep insight into normal human physiology and disease states,” says Sharon Greenblum of the department of genome sciences and first author of the study paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.